Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Look at me breaking my reading and writing slump. Perhaps reading a memoir about losing one’s mother to cancer (relatable content) weeks after losing my late mother’s mother wasn’t the wisest choice. In my defense I had no idea what I was in store for with Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. It’s been on my holds list at the library for weeks. I never read a summary. Y’all know I’m a sucker for a memoir. When I finally clawed myself out of my reading hiatus, the hold was about to lapse, so I accepted.
Kudos to me. I managed not to shed a single thug tear. While Michelle loves the food of her mother’s native country, it’s only after Chongmi passes from terminal pancreatic cancer that Michelle flourishes in making some of the authentic Korean cuisine dishes, thanks in part to a YouTuber she discovered while being caretaker to her ailing mother.
Michelle is the biracial daughter of a Korean mother and white American father who met while he was living in Seoul. With nine-month-old Michelle in tow, the two move to Eugene, Oregon. As we children of immigrant(s) are prone to do, we fight to assimilate into the dominant culture during our youth and later regret denying our roots when we’re older. In the case of Michelle, she languishes in the zone of elementary level knowledge of the Korean language.
The cruel twist of fate for Michelle’s family is that Chongmi is the second sister of three to die of cancer. Chongmi’s younger sister was also stricken with the Big C back home in Korea. Their eldest sister twice became a caretaker for her two younger siblings. The language barrier makes it difficult for Michelle to communicate with her aunt, but the familial bond is unbreakable, especially since it was forged when Michelle spent parts of her childhood with her mother visiting her grandmother and aunts in Korea.
Though Michelle’s parents have an unconventional love story, it was a love story nonetheless that Michelle watched unfold until it ended when her mother passed away in her marital bed with her husband of thirty plus years beside her. In another room, in the same house, Michelle and her husband of a mere few weeks also slept, knowing the end was near. In a poignant scene, Michelle observes that the two couples are at the opposite spectrum of their marriages.
While Crying in H Mart is a memoir about Michelle’s mother dying of cancer, it is also a memoir about falling in love with music, joining and forming bands, moving away to college, the foods she ate growing up, and a history of parents separately and together. While Michelle’s mother’s upbringing wasn’t a total walk in the park, she did have the love of her siblings and mother. Michelle’s father, on the other hand, was marred with drug abuse and alcoholism, which he relapses into after becoming a widower.
A part of me wishes that I had actually read Crying in H Mart instead of listening to the audiobook. I would know the spellings of the Korean phrases and dishes that she eloquently the narrates. I want to start fermenting and storing my own kimchi, even though in my heart of hearts I know it’ll be a total disaster. Besides, like Michelle in the tiny Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband (not me, I’m solo), where am I going to keep a kimchi fridge in what’s more of a kitchenette than a kitchen? The beautiful surprise about keeping her mother’s kimchi refrigerator is that she (re)discovers long lost family photos, not only of herself, but when her parents were young. After her mother’s death is also when Michelle’s career as a musician with her band Japanese Breakfast finally takes off. Though not religious, she believes that it’s due in part to her mother having her foot on God’s neck to ensure she realizes a dream that she thought she had paused.
I was oblivious to the Korean-American supermarket chain H Mart, nor did I have any idea who Michelle Zauner was when I selected Crying in H Mart. It’s one of those books that intrigued me. I saw the red-covered New York Times bestseller everywhere, and I wanted to check it out. Thanks, Bookstagram! I enjoyed reading about her life in Oregon, her vacations to Asian countries, her dinners and body scrubs with her mother, her courtship and marriage with Peter—who deserves an award for being a great and supportive partner. If you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t been touched or affected by cancer, reading Crying in H Mart gives a peak into what it’s like being the child of someone dying from terminal cancer. It also sheds a light on someone who straddles two cultures. While she struggles to hang on to bits of it, she shares more than enough with those of us who were completely ignorant.
Food is always a good starting point and gateway into other cultures. Zauner’s elaborate descriptions of ingredients, tastes, and smells of meals reminded me of another memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi and YA novel With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Aceveodo. I could go on with other food-centric or food adjacent books, but that’s not the point. Crying in H Mart is a sweet memoir and ode from a daughter to her late mom, who although they had a strained relationship, they loved each other. Chongmi told her daughter she should always hold back 10% of herself for herself, but in reality they both gave 100%.
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